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In this photo released by the Pakistan's President Office, President Arif Alvi, right, administers the oath of office to newly elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif during a ceremony at the Presidential Palace, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, March 4, 2024. Lawmakers in Pakistan's National Assembly have elected Sharif for a comeback term as the country's prime minister, as allies of imprisoned former premier Imran Khan in parliament shouted in protest, alleging rigging in last month's election. (Pakistan's President Office via AP)

Gulf States Exercise Caution After Pakistan’s Disputed Election

Located at the crossroads of South Asia, Central Asia and the broader Middle East, Pakistan remains a vitally important country. The country’s Muslim identity and historic cultural ties connect it with its western neighbors, Afghanistan and Iran, but also with the Gulf states that lie just across a small stretch of the Arabian Sea. As Pakistanis went to the polls in the country’s 12th general election since the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1947, the nations of the Gulf watched closely and evaluated how the results would affect their own interests in the world’s second-most-populous Muslim state.

Waxing and Waning Saudi Influence

During the 1970s, geopolitical developments in the Middle East and western Asia—namely the Iranian Revolution in February 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of the same year—intertwined the security dynamics of the two regions. In order to fight the spread of both Soviet communism and Iranian clericalism, the Arab monarchies of the Gulf region developed close interpersonal linkages with the ruling civil-military elites in Pakistan, which became an essential bulwark against both ideologies. In the years that followed, Saudi Arabia emerged as the most prominent Gulf actor within Pakistan; in the words of Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of the Saudi Intelligence Presidency, the Saudi-Pakistani bilateral relationship was “one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries without any official treaty.” During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, Pakistani troops were deployed within Saudi Arabia to protect the ruling family against the spread of the conflict, further deepening the relationship between the Pakistani military and the House of Saud.

Saudi engagement within Pakistan reached a threshold where, in the words of former Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Riyadh was no longer an observer but an active participant in Pakistan’s politics. After the 1977 military coup in Pakistan, Saudi authorities tried to mediate between the military and deposed Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had been a close ally and personal friend of Saudi Arabia’s late King Faisal. The Saudi efforts eventually failed, however, and Bhutto was ultimately hanged by the military government. In 1999, the House of Saud once again intervened in Pakistani politics after General Pervez Musharraf overthrew then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; this time, authorities in Riyadh, led by then-Crown Prince Abdullah, were able to secure exile for Sharif in Saudi Arabia. The latter effort showed how Saudi Arabia had developed and sustained a unique leverage in Pakistani politics, allowing it to intervene when the Saud family deemed it necessary to secure its preferred outcomes.

As is natural, Saudi Arabia’s relationships with the key players in Pakistani domestic politics have evolved over time. After Bhutto’s ouster and execution, Saudi decision-makers maintained cordial ties with Pakistan’s top military commanders. They also developed close ties with the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother Shehbaz, both of whom went on to become prime ministers. Riyadh also cultivated relationships with Pakistan’s conservative Deobandi religious parties, which were uniquely drawn to Saudi Arabia due to its status as the home of Islam’s holiest places.

In the course of curating its Pakistani friends, Saudi Arabia also made enemies. While Kings Faisal and Khalid had enjoyed close ties with Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) prior to the prime minister’s overthrow, the PPP later drifted out of Saudi orbit. In 2008, after it came to power once again, PPP leaders—including then-President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s son-in-law—pursued a balanced foreign policy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, earning Riyadh’s lasting enmity.

The meteoric rise of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and the populist “Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf” (PTI) party has also complicated Saudi-Pakistani relations. While Khan initially enjoyed close ties with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his relative tilt towards Turkey during the second half of his administration led to a chill in the bilateral relationship. Though Pakistani-Saudi relations have since recovered, Saudi policymakers have largely cut ties with Khan, preferring to entrust their interests in Pakistan to the relatively steady hand of the Pakistan Armed Forces.

Divided Loyalties

The governments of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates enjoy a similar level of interpersonal linkages with Pakistan’s civil-military elites. In the case of the UAE, this relationship has traditionally been closer to the Sharif family. During the 2000s, Emirati authorities also developed strong ties with PPP chairwoman Benazir Bhutto, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, during her exile in Dubai. During this time, Emirati authorities arranged for political negotiations between Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf, who was the Pakistan’s military ruler at the time. These talks resulted in the signing of a “National Reconciliation Ordinance” (NRO) in 2007 that gave amnesty to several exiled politicians, including Bhutto, paved the way for their return to Pakistan, and resumed the nation’s civil political process.

Similarly, the Sharif family, owing to their joint business ventures with former Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasim, gradually also developed strong ties with Qatari royals. The tension between Sharif’s ties to different Arab monarchies came to a head during the Gulf diplomatic crisis of 2017, when the prime minister was put under immense pressure by Saudi leaders to cut ties with his Qatari friends. Sharif’s refusal to do so—and his attempts to secure Pakistan’s neutrality toward the crisis—enraged Saudi authorities and led MBS to build bridges with the PTI and Imran Khan after he became Prime Minister the following year.

After Khan’s removal in April 2022 as a result of a military-backed motion of no confidence, Shahbaz Sharif—Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother—became Prime Minister and headed a coalition government consisting of the Sharif-dominated PML-N and the PPP. However, this new setup failed to stabilize the country both politically and economically. Though he had announced his intention to secure an $8 billion bailout from Saudi Arabia, the younger Sharif’s government could only secure a $2 billion windfall to shore up the country’s foreign reserves and restart the International Monetary Fund’s package for Pakistan. Saudi Arabia’s refusal to bail out Pakistan suggested Riyadh’s growing reluctance to provide its erstwhile partner with unconditional bailouts—and an expectation that Islamabad should carry out comprehensive economic reforms in line with those recommended by the IMF. The ongoing confrontation between the currently jailed Imran Khan and the country’s military has fueled significant political uncertainty throughout the country—lending to an ever-growing sense of crisis.

A February Surprise

Pakistan’s most recent general election, held on February 8, took place against this backdrop. It would appear that the chaotic political events of the last two years have eroded public trust in Pakistan’s political “establishment” and worked in favor of Imran Khan, whose PTI won the greatest number of parliamentary seats out of any party—even though PTI candidates were technically registered as independents and Khan himself remains in jail. So poor was the establishment’s position that the much-touted return from exile of Nawaz Sharif could not deliver for the PML-N, which has received the lion’s share of the blame for Pakistan’s political and economic crisis over the past two years. PTI officials  also leveled allegations of widespread electoral fraud by state machinery, even claiming that the PTI would have won a two-thirds majority in parliament if the results had not been doctored by the military and the PTI’s political opposition. Regardless of the veracity of these allegations, international observers raised concerns about voter intimidation in the weeks leading up to the vote, and the Council on Foreign Relations criticized the election as “not free or fair.”

Ultimately, the country’s civil-military establishment has firmly locked ranks against Khan and the PTI. It appears that Khan’s political opponents will cobble together a new coalition government—probably headed again by Shahbaz Sharif. However, such a political arrangement will only further destabilize the country and prolong the ongoing political and economic crisis.

With Khan’s incarceration, the return of former PM Nawaz Sharif to Pakistan, and the military’s continued domination of domestic politics, the Gulf states presumably expected an overwhelming electoral victory for the PML-N that would end Pakistan’s ongoing political crisis and restore cordial Pakistani-Gulf ties once more. A PML-N victory may have seen Pakistan’s political and financial situation improve dramatically, as the country’s benefactors in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi  would likely have restarted stalled investment initiatives and extended a new bailout for the beleaguered country. By contrast, the situation that ultimately came to pass—a surprising PTI win, with the likely establishment of a narrow, precarious anti-PTI coalition backed by the military—can only portend greater instability for the country’s future. It is noteworthy that the Gulf states have reacted cautiously to these developments and have not commented on the electoral process itself, and have only congratulated the new prime minister on assuming the office. While Pakistan’s political future remains uncertain, the Gulf states will likely adopt a “wait and see” approach—maintaining ongoing security engagements with Pakistan and cautiously observing the evolution of a political saga that has gripped the country.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: GCC

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Umer Karim is a visiting fellow at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) London, where he focuses on the evolving political and security environment within South Asia and the Middle East. He is also a doctoral researcher at University of Birmingham where he focuses of Evolution of Saudi Foreign Policy and Middle East International Relations.


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